Minnesota school districts are struggling to find teachers, fill open positions

Kindergarten students at Falcon Heights Elementary School
Kindergarten students at Falcon Heights Elementary School attentively listen to their teacher, Laurie Schlossmacher, during a classroom lesson on May 17 in Falcon Heights, Minn.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

In St. Paul, school leaders are offering hiring bonuses in the thousands of dollars. In Duluth, they’re stepping up recruitment and retention efforts. And, in districts around the state, there are struggles to fill open positions — from bus drivers to paraprofessionals and classroom teachers. 

Deb Henton, who is executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said hiring is one of the top issues school leaders are facing.

“We're hearing a lot about teachers,” Henton said. “There are shortage areas that have been in existence for a while that are really getting to a point where they are severe. Leaders are really working hard to recruit candidates for the open positions.” 

There are various ways to measure the problem schools are facing. The Professional Educator Licensing and Licensing Standards Board (PELSB) found in its 2023 report that between 80-90 percent of Minnesota districts were significantly impacted by teacher and substitute shortages. It also found that nearly a third of new educators are leaving teaching within the first five years of the profession. 

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“There used to be many, many applicants for open positions. For example, maybe an elementary teacher opening would have 30 or 40 applicants, sometimes even more than that. Now we are seeing maybe one or two applicants,” Henton said. “It’s not just the typical shortage areas that we have been facing in recent years, which are special education teachers, career and technical education teachers, math and science teachers.”

‘One of the most difficult times I’ve faced’

In Duluth, school leaders have struggled over the summer to fill food service, maintenance, paraprofessional and bus driver positions. Superintendent John Magas said it’s a problem that’s been growing for years — the number of people graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education is less than half of what it was in 1970 — but the pandemic has made things worse.

“Overall in education, even prior to the pandemic, we saw that the teacher pipeline was starting to be a little bit more constricted,” Magas said. “Nationally we had far fewer people going into teaching than we had previously.”

For Duluth, the second year of the pandemic was the most challenging in terms of staffing. Magas said they had to close one of their elementary schools because there wasn’t enough staff to safely open the building to students.  

“That caught everybody off guard,” Magas said. “That was just really crushing when it came to staffing... that was one of the most difficult times I've faced in education.” 

Things are better this year, however — something Magas attributes, in part, to the work his team has done to recruit and retain educators. They tried addressing burnout by purchasing mental health app memberships for staff, establishing affinity groups and asking teachers to stick with the district through challenging times. They’ve stepped up efforts to recruit by streamlining their application process, creating videos to highlight positions, visiting job fairs, local powwows and Juneteenth festivals. 

“We've tried to put more emphasis on Duluth Public Schools being an employer of choice in our city, and also what that means to work here — how it does impact the community,” said Theresa Severance, Duluth Public Schools’ executive director of HR and operations. 

In St. Paul, school leaders are trying to attract educators with bonuses — an initiative started this spring — with payments of up to $10,000 for special education teachers and $4,000 for non-certified positions advertised at a job fair earlier this month. In mid-August, however, the district still had nearly 200 school-based open positions — many of which were filled on the spot at a jobs fair at Como High School. 

School leadership has made other investments in recruiting — traveling to HBCUs in other states and investing in a “grow your own” program to train community members interested in teaching. 

“Educators don't need to be traditional educators,” said SPPS communications specialist, Ryan Stanzel. “We accept everyone and we'll work with you on the training to become a great educator.”

Like Duluth, St. Paul school leaders say staffing issues are improving as compared to last year, but hiring remains a struggle. 

A teacher during a class.
Math teacher Ed Lewis works through some math problems during class at Denfeld High School in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2022

‘Respect for the teaching profession’

Both school and state leaders acknowledge teachers have not had it easy over the pandemic — and many are suffering from burnout. But Monica Byron, who is vice president of Education Minnesota, the state teacher union, said the burnout goes beyond teaching over Zoom and working with students struggling with pandemic challenges. She said she’s concerned about teachers feeling disrespected. 

A 2022 PELSB-funded survey of more than 15,000 teachers statewide found “public view of the (teaching) profession” was the top challenge that could lead an educator to quit teaching. Parents followed as the next most pressing challenge.

When asked what would help most with teacher retention, respondents said increasing teacher pay and benefits along with reducing teacher burdens would be most effective. 

“If Minnesota is going to get serious about fixing the teacher shortage, we need to get serious about restoring respect for the teaching profession,” said Education Minnesota’s Monica Byron. 

Byron said local unions are focused on negotiating contracts to “retain great teachers, attract the next generation of educators and keep student-to-staff ratios low.” But she added that climbing health insurance costs, the ongoing school mental health crisis and the low pay and pensions teachers receive compared to other careers make it difficult for schools as well as teachers. 

‘It’s going to take time and commitment’

 State leaders are taking notice of staffing concerns. 

The state education department recently launched the Educator Workforce and Development Center with over $100 million dollars in funding approved in the recent legislative session. 

Assistant Education Commissioner Angela Mansfield said the money will go towards mentoring support, a new special education teacher pipeline program, reimbursements for testing and licensing fees and more grants for “grow your own” programs like those in Duluth and St. Paul. 

“We have seen very real challenges across our entire state and the nation in retaining teachers — it’s come out of the pandemic, but it also existed ahead of the pandemic,” Mansfield said. “It’s hard to be that teacher in the classroom.” 

Education Minnesota’s Byron said she’s excited about the new center’s work and mission, but she warns the problem is likely much larger. 

“It’s going to take time and commitment by policymakers at all levels to get us out,” Byron said. “Initiatives like the state’s new Educator Workforce Development Center are a welcome part of the solution but it won’t be nearly enough on its own.” 

Meanwhile, there are many places still working to get staff in the door in time for school to start. At the beginning of August, the Minnesota School Boards Association surveyed districts and found the number of teacher and paraprofessional vacancies statewide was in the thousands, with nearly 2,000 estimated positions that, as of Aug. 9, had zero people applying. 

Kirk Schneidawind, who is executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said the problem is deep-rooted. 

“This has been kind of an ongoing trickle effect over the last few years,” Schneidawind said. “Now it feels like it's kind of reached a point of deep concern about the opportunities that could be lost, or the adjustments that need to be made.”

Schneidawind said school leaders are relying more on recruiting firms than they have in the past. They’re also contemplating a variety of solutions, to fill necessary requirements when understaffed — things like online learning, collaborations with colleges and universities, and interactive televised learning. 

“It’s got to be a much more comprehensive solution that includes not only our districts but higher education, state leaders,” Schneidawind said. “We need to be a little bit more serious about finding long term solutions.”

Izzy Beckman listens to classroom instruction at home
A student listens to classroom instruction at home from an RPS Online School teacher in Rochester.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News file